Advice on International Cell Phone Data

It’s undeniable that smartphones have made the modern-day travel experience much simpler. Gone are the days of needing to carry around a paper map or atlas, a camera, and a book of basic terms to communicate in the local language – now, all of these tools and more can be found on a single device that fits right in your pocket. However, our dependence on smartphones means we have to ensure that we can rely on them to work when we travel abroad. There are a dizzying array of options to choose from for international data, which can make this part of your travel preparation feel daunting. Read on for GEEO’s insights on international cell phone data so that you can decide which option is right for you.

Purchase a SIM card

If you plan to use significant amounts of cellular data, consider purchasing a SIM card either prior to departure or after you arrive at your destination – just make sure your phone is not locked to your current provider. If you will be traversing multiple countries, purchasing an international prepaid SIM card online in advance might be ideal, since you can find a card that will work in all of your destination countries. Check out SimOptions for physical SIM cards and Airalo for e-SIMs.

If you will only be visiting one foreign country, you can get the most bang for your buck by purchasing a SIM card locally at a mobile phone shop, newsstand, supermarket, or convenience store. If your flight arrives during normal business hours, you may be able to find a vendor in the airport that sells SIM cards. There could be several mobile carriers in your destination country, so research in advance which providers have the best coverage and the most reliable networks. Locally-purchased SIM cards tend to have the best value and highest data allowance, so they are ideal for travelers who plan to upload photos and videos to social media or use other data-intensive apps during their trip.

If your phone supports dual SIM cards and/or e-SIMs, you should be able to use both your normal cellular plan and the foreign SIM card at the same time. You can then adjust your phone’s cellular settings to control which SIM card is used for different functions (e.g. cellular data versus text messages and phone calls).

Set up an international plan with your current provider

This option is ideal for travelers who want to be ready to jump into action as soon as they step foot off of the plane. By making arrangements with your carrier ahead of time, your cellphone will be able to connect automatically to a local cellular tower upon arrival at your destination, and your service will not be disrupted. While this option can be the most convenient method, it can also be the most expensive. Some U.S. cellular providers (like T-Mobile) allow you to use your data plan overseas at no extra cost, while others can charge expensive roaming fees. Your provider may offer a plan with a daily rate (e.g. $10/day), which will allow you to pay a flat fee only the days that you use cellular service abroad, regardless of how much you use each day. Be aware that you may have a limited amount of data allotted per day, which can run out sooner than you might anticipate.

Check your provider’s existing coverage outside of your home country

Some carriers automatically provide international coverage in your plan. For example, a U.S. resident who crosses the border into Canada or Mexico may be still be able to pick up cellular service at no extra cost. But if you will be wandering farther than a neighboring country, you’ll need to consider other options.

Forgo cellular service

For the hardcore folk looking to unplug entirely and feel the nostalgia of the pre-cellphone era, there’s always the option of forgoing cellular service and relying on WiFi at your hotels or places that provide free public networks. While this restricts when and where you can go online, if you’re feeling confident, this option can save you a lot of money. You can also do more offline than you might expect. For example, you can download maps for offline use in Google Maps and download languages for offline translation in Google Translate. You lose some features like live traffic data, public transportation directions, and translation over audio or with your camera, but you should still have access to enough of the features to walk around a small city or translate a word or phrase. Plus, nothing beats the freedom of going notification-free so that you don’t get distracted from your travel adventures!